In the aftermath of the First World War, Woodrow Wilson tried to push a comprehensive and enlightened peace plan.
Credit: Image courtesy of American Memory at the Library of Congress.
In January 1918, less than one year after the United States entered World War I, President Woodrow Wilson announced his Fourteen Points to try to ensure permanent peace and to make the world safe for democracy. Wilson's aims included freedom of the seas, free trade, and, most important, an international organization dedicated to collective security and the spreading of democracy. The other Allied powers tacitly and cautiously accepted Wilson's plan as a template for a postwar treaty; however, numerous obstacles lay in the path of the Fourteen Points at the 1919 Paris Peace Conference. Wilson reluctantly made several concessions, yet he successfully protected the Fourteenth Point, the League of Nations, which was written into the Versailles Treaty. After enduring months of bruising, frustrating negotiations, Wilson finally returned to the United States. Despite obvious Senate reservations about the League of Nations, Wilson was certain the Versailles Treaty would be ratified. He was wrong.
Through the use of primary source documents and maps, this lesson will introduce students to Wilson's Fourteen Points, as well as his efforts to have them incorporated into the final peace treaties.
Did the Versailles Treaty represent the fulfillment of Wilson's Fourteen Points, or their betrayal?
In January 1918, Woodrow Wilson unveiled his Fourteen Points to the U.S. Congress. The speech was a natural extension of the proposals he had offered in his "Peace without Victory" address and his request for a declaration of war. Presuming an Allied victory, the President proposed freedom of the seas and of trade, arms reductions, and fair settlement of colonial claims and possessions. He insisted that "open covenants of peace, openly arrived at," must be the benchmark of postwar negotiations. He suggested that a repentant and reformed Germany would not be oppressed, but rather welcomed into the international community. That community, Wilson concluded, would be bound together in a league of nations devoted to collective security and spreading democracy.
Although the Allied powers cautiously agreed to use the Fourteen Points as a treaty template, the circumstances of the war and the specific postwar aims of numerous nations combined to make a formidable obstacle. In 1915, the secret London agreements had proposed ceding the German territory of the Saar (rich in coal) to France, and South Tyrol, controlled by Austria-Hungary, to Italy. Japan hoped to take German claims in the North Pacific and China, while Great Britain hoped to secure claims in Africa and south of the equator in the Pacific.
By the war's end, in November 1918, these tensions had mounted. France and Great Britain both wanted Germany to pay extensive war reparations. Great Britain, with an eye toward protecting its far-flung empire, also resisted freedom of the seas. Wilson hammered out a compromise. Together, the Allies would precisely define "freedom of the seas," and Germany would have to pay some reparations. Meanwhile domestic political tensions were rising. In the midterm elections, Republicans gained control of Congress. Nevertheless, Wilson opted only for token Republican representation on the U.S. delegation headed to Paris, the site of the postwar peace proceedings, which began in January 1919. This snub did not pass unnoticed by Senator Henry Cabot Lodge (R-Mass.), who now chaired the Senate Foreign Relations Committee.
The proceedings were raucous and confusing. Wilson, who had rejected advice that he might better fulfill his Fourteen Points by remaining in Washington, immersed himself in the day-to-day negotiations. His greatest challenge was the spirit of vengeance that animated the other Allied leaders. Not only did they want to punish Germany, they also wanted to use victory to obtain new territory in Europe and to divvy up Germany's colonial possessions. Wilson struggled to balance pragmatism and idealism. On the colonial question, he agreed to substitute the "mandate system" for full and fair self-determination. Under this system, the Allied powers assumed governing control over the colonies of Germany and areas such as Syria and Lebanon that had belonged to the Ottoman Empire. The expectation was that the Allied powers would eventually free their "mandates." He also accepted the transfer of some one million square miles of territory between nations; in return, the covenant of the League of Nations was embedded into the Versailles Treaty.
In June 1919, Germany's defiant representatives, who had been excluded from the proceedings, grudgingly signed the Versailles Treaty. Wilson's decision to now present the Versailles Treaty to the Senate as a fait accompli was quite risky. Republican doubts about the League had hardened; indeed, a group of Senators known as the "Irreconcilables," led by William Borah of Idaho, had proclaimed they would not support American membership in the League. Much opposition resulted from Article Ten of the League's covenant, which committed nations to the protection of the territorial integrity of all other members. This seemed to undermine Congressional authority to declare war, though the precise obligations of the United States were not clear. Lodge and the "Reservationists" were, at least initially, ready to act on the Versailles Treaty if Wilson separated the covenant. They also seemed willing to accept U.S. membership provided Congress kept the power to decide whether or not the United States would intervene militarily on behalf of the League. But Wilson refused to yield, as did Lodge and his allies. The debate over the League spilled over onto the 1920 presidential campaign, and while the election of Republican Warren G. Harding, who declared his opposition to the League, cannot be assessed only as a referendum on Wilsonian diplomacy, it was clear that the American public had grown weary of crusades, domestic and international. The United States never joined the League, finally ending the official state of war with Germany in the summer of 1921 through the Treaty of Berlin.
For an overview of the League of Nations and the Versailles Treaty, visit From Revolution to Reconstruction, accessible via the EDSITEment-reviewed Internet Public Library). For another EDSITEment lesson plan on this subject, see The Debate in the United States over the League of Nations: League of Nations Basics.
To provide your students with the skills needed to examine primary sources, you may find it helpful to visit the Learning Page from the Library of Congress. In particular, students may find the Mindwalk activity useful in preparing to work with primary sources. At the National Archives website, the Digital Classroom provides worksheets to practice analysis of various primary sources, including photographs.
Another exercise involving interpretation of historic photographs can be found at History Matters
In the first activity, the students will read Wilson's Fourteen Points and determine how the points reveal Wilson's foreign policy goals. Divide the class into groups of three or more, and then distribute copies of an abridged version of the Fourteen Points. This address is available in its complete form at the EDSITEment-reviewed site The Avalon Project, but excerpts may be found on pages 1-3 of the Text Document. In addition, give each group a copy of the worksheet on page 4 of the Text Document. This worksheet provides capsule summaries of four goals of Wilsonian foreign policy. In their groups, students will create a poster-size concept map that matches each of the Fourteen Points to one of the four goals. (See Text Document for more detailed instructions.)
To help students identify the locations mentioned in the document, they should be directed to the following map of Europe in 1914, accessible via the EDSITEment-reviewed site History Matters. Either photocopy and distribute the map to the students, or project an image onto a screen in the classroom.
In the second activity, students will divide into two teams, A and B. Each team will further divide into small groups (depending on class size). Team A groups will study documents 1-3; Team B groups will read documents 4-6. In presentations to the rest of the class, the groups for both teams will answer this question: how supportive of the Fourteen Points were the other Allied nations? All groups will be required to use historical evidence from their sources to support their answer.
Excerpts of the documents, and specific questions to be answered, may be found on pages 6-9 of the Text Document. Team A groups should receive pages 5-6, while Team B groups get pages 7-9.
The third and final activity is a card-based game in which students attempt to match up Wilson's Fourteen Points to specific terms of the Versailles Treaty. Complete rules of the game may be found on pages 10-11 of the Text Document—these should be handed out to students. In addition, students should have access to maps showing the boundaries of Europe both before and after World War I. Such maps may be found at the site of the United States Military Academy at West Point, accessible via History Matters. Copies of the map may be distributed to the students, or they may be projected onto a screen for the class to view.
Pages 12-20 of the Text Document contain a total of 26 cards—15 marked "Wilson's Fourteen Points," and 12 marked "Versailles Treaty." Divide the students into two teams; give each member of the first team a card from the "Wilson's Fourteen Points" deck, and give each member of the second a card from the "Versailles Treaty" deck.
Begin by asking a student holding the lowest-numbered "Versailles Treaty" card to stand and read his or her card aloud. At that point any member of the "Fourteen Points" team who believes that his or her card pertains to that particular clause of the Versailles Treaty should also stand and read the contents of his or her card, and explain why it fits. If more than one student from the "Fourteen Points" team responds, the teacher should lead a brief discussion (no more than five minutes) before asking the class to decide which of the cardholders has the closest connection to the Versailles peace term. If a geographic location is mentioned on any of the cards, ask the students to note that location on the map.
Each time that a member of the "Fourteen Points" team is matched up with a member of the "Versailles" team, that pair should write the contents of their cards on the board. The game continues until each member of the "Versailles" team has read his or her card, and has been matched with a member of the "Fourteen Points" team. At this point there should still be three members of the latter team who have not read aloud the contents of their cards. They should do so now.
To conclude the activity, teachers should lead students in a discussion touching on the following questions:
After completing this lesson, students should also be able to write brief (1-2 paragraph) essays answering the following questions:
Students should be able to identify and explain the significance of the following:
Finally, students should be able to locate the following on a blank map of Europe:
3-4 class periods